The most recent episode of Atlanta, “The Big Payback,” illustrates one man’s journey from blinkered white privilege to greater awareness via Marshall, played by Justin Bartha, perhaps best known to the masses as Doug from The Hangover. A middle-age, soon-to-be-divorced dad whose life is upended when a Black woman named Shaniqua (Melissa Youngblood) demands that he pay her reparations, Bartha’s Marshall is the centerpiece of a thought-provoking 36 minutes of television that, for the second time in Atlanta’s third season, veers away from the principal characters to tell a separate, thematically relevant story.
The role required Bartha to deliver an understated performance that engenders empathy from the audience even as Marshall denies his white privilege and bias to himself and those around him. “We all just obsessively tried to infuse every moment with the possibilities of the layered realities clashing with each other,” Bartha says, referring to director Hiro Murai and the episode’s writer, Francesca Sloane. He recently joined Vulture on Zoom to talk through those layered realities, how the details in the episode’s script and direction informed his performance, and what to take away from a critical scene in a hotel bar.
Did they tell you going into this role, “By the way, you’re going to be the star of this episode of Atlanta and Donald Glover is not in it”?
I had a sense from the sides that it was a kind of bottle episode, but I didn’t know much. I didn’t know that it was really this guy’s journey the entire time. So after reading it, honestly, as strange as it might sound, I think I cried with joy and gratitude for actually being able to be a part of this.
What kind of a person is Marshall? It’s deliberately ambiguous, I think, but what was your sense of that going into it?
Creating the guy, it was a lot about looking for the clues within the dialogue to start off. So much of it stemmed from this one line of, he’s just a guy trying to get by. I had a very strong instinct from the jump that this guy has to be the man in the middle. He’s a passive participant. He doesn’t opt in. He hasn’t considered the societal reality. He doesn’t have a lot of strong social opinions, religious ties. He’s an everyman in the sense that you have to be able to empathize with him on this journey, because it would just become a one-sided, easy, like, “Oh, he deserves this.”
He’s in a bubble, like we all are. And he’s maybe not overly aware of that bubble, but another way in for me was considering this fine line between willful ignorance and a curated innocence. It’s like, how much is he actively trying to shut out any part of what is happening around him and how much is he curating through podcasts, through his routine, through even his personal reality of, “Okay. My marriage has dissolved. This is my problem. How can I navigate this problem? How do I connect with my daughter? Is my work actually meaningful?” I then tried to whittle down and connect to every little notch on the journey, the tick, tick, tick of the time bomb of him having no choice but to face reality.
Every metaphor, every single moment, whether it’s the cookie, whether it’s a picture of three shrimp, whether it’s a line that seems like a throwaway line — “There’s more where that came from” — it’s like, it seems so simple. Hiro and I would have endless conversations about it. You could unpack it, the layers of the meaning, with a simple, stupid cartoon picture of three shrimp. I could say, “Well, those three shrimp, if you look at that one picture, it’s a big smile, a half-smile, and no-teeth smile.” Once you unpack every moment in this piece, the character gets colored by these metaphors and by these moments.
It’s funny that you brought up the shrimp, because the shrimp reminded me of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Did you and Hiro talk about that?
No, we did not talk too much about the shrimp, but I definitely thought of Bubba Gump Shrimp. The amazing thing about the shrimp is that you can start with a grand metaphor of African Americans’ relationship to seafood in this country and then you can bring it all the way to the character of this guy who has a job where he has to decide between three animated cartoon shrimp on a piece of paper. That’s his job. And he probably doesn’t even have the final say. He has this meaningless job that he’s getting paid for, most likely better than Shaniqua. I had to approach it from that character perspective and how much he’s even aware of that, which is he’s never thought about it. Right?
When you look back from Marshall in the restaurant, that job is so different than the job he had before, yet is he more at peace with that job now? This season of Atlanta is all connected and ripe with metaphors in every single turn. It’s so interesting. It’s challenging.
As you were saying, Marshall doesn’t think that the reparation stuff is going to affect him. He’s very confident about that. At first he’s like, “Well, that guy has a lot of money. Who cares if a Tesla guy is being sued?” Then he is very sure that of course he wouldn’t have any relatives who ever had slaves — you look like you want to say something.
All interpretations are welcome, and that’s the exciting thing about this. All I would say is I get a little uncomfortable when you say “very sure” of himself, confident. This is a guy that is not very sure. He’s not confident. Even though he’s saying, “I don’t yell fire unless I see smoke,” there is a sense about him, or at least I tried to put in that sense, that he doesn’t have that strong of an opinion. He more errs on the side of conflict averse.
You’re right. He’s not arrogant. I guess I felt like, especially when he’s talking to his daughter and says, “We’re not racist,” he’s certain, but he’s also not —
He’s fooling himself. He does not want to be uncomfortable.
Regarding the hotel-bar scene, does the script make explicit that E is the guy from episode one? Or did you have to piece that together yourself?
No, that was explicitly in there. Obviously that great actor, Tobias Segal, he had already shot the other episode and we knew that it connected. It’s all purposeful and it’s all from these great artists’ minds.
That scene was definitely the hardest to shoot, for a lot of reasons. I saw it as kind of this purgatory. It reminded me in a weird way of Defending Your Life, the Albert Brooks movie. It’s really the first time that Marshall is letting someone else in.
It changed a little from the script, that conversation. It took some time to get it right, because E’s further on his journey from Marshall’s perspective. E is a guy that’s already in the acceptance phase of his grief. He understands. And when he sits down, he knows where Marshall’s at. He also knows that Marshall can’t quite let him in. It was balancing this idea of, How much can I really understand what this guy is saying? I can’t quite fully accept that we deserve this. It has to be before the acceptance. He’s still battling with this strange, amorphous emptiness.
The beautiful climax of that scene, brilliant climax in my opinion, is he’s imparted this information and he goes on Instagram and he clicks on Shaniqua’s video. For the first time, he is able to be empathetic to this other woman’s personal reality. Then the man of acceptance kills himself. So he’s presented with a crossroads. You could either go this way or you could go this way. And it’s almost like it had to get to a point where in a weird way that ghost — which I think E is, this kind of ghost — is giving him a gift. “Let’s see which path he’ll choose.” Then in the epilogue, obviously you see what path he chose.
E certainly seems to have reached acceptance but then he goes outside and kills himself. My takeaway was that he had come to terms with the moment and thought it was for the best, but also did not want to live in a world where there was more systemic balance between Black and white people. What was your take on it?
I can’t possibly get into that character’s head of why exactly he did it. I know that from where I’m sitting, in hindsight, there is an odd feeling that this man had to do that so that Marshall could fully understand what is at stake. Who knows if Marshall could have gotten there without that act?
It’s hard to know how anybody’s going to respond to a piece of television until it’s out there in the world, but how do you think people are going to respond to this?
Oh, Jen. I really don’t know. All I know is that I am so proud of this. It’s just so whole and it opens up a conversation. That’s what it’s for. As long as it’s received and people are talking about it, I think that is the point.
This interview has been edited and condensed.